Sex workers are three times more likely to suffer violence when faced with “repressive” policing, a study by leading public health experts shows. Full decriminalization is needed urgently to protect their right to health, academics Lucy Platt and Pippa Grenfell write.
The debate on what is the best policy to adopt in relation to sex work is active and seems to be polarised between two broad camps.
There are some who view prostitution as a form of violence and call for its criminalization and abolition. And there are others who call for its decriminalization, viewing sex work as a form of labour made more dangerous by its illegality.
Amid this debate, our team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine sought to fill an important evidence gap: which policies protect sex workers’ safety, health and broader rights best?
In December last year, we published a piece of research on the effects that different laws and policing practices have on sex workers’ safety, health and access to services – bringing together the findings of 86 studies across 33 countries.
Here we will summarize some of what we found out and explain why the best option is full decriminalization.
How Do Sex Work Laws Vary Across The World?
The legal status of sex work in the UK can be described as “partial criminalization”. It is not illegal to sell sex but organizational aspects of sex work, such as soliciting in a street or public place or working collectively in a brothel, are punishable offences.
A number of countries have adopted what is known as “the Nordic Model”, named after Sweden where it was pioneered two decades ago, which criminalizes the purchase but not the sale of sex.
This model is also currently law in Canada, France, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Norway and Ireland. While the sale of sex is not criminalized in this model, laws against brothel keeping or living off the proceeds of sex work are often used against sex workers.
In 2003, New Zealand fully decriminalized adult sex work – including selling, buying and organising. It now regulates the sex industry through occupational health and safety standards.
New Zealand’s approach should not to be confused with the “regulatory” or “legalized” models used in Germany, the Netherlands, Senegal and parts of Mexico, among other places.
The latter four countries have made the sale of sex legal in certain settings or circumstances, such as in licensed brothels, often with mandatory registration and HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing. But it remains illegal outside these settings or for individuals who do not meet registration requirements.
“Full criminalization,” as used in most of the US and Sri Lanka for example, prohibits both the selling and buying of sex.
What Did We Find?
The evidence showed that sex workers who had experienced criminalisation and repressive policing were three times more likely to experience violence, twice as likely to have HIV and/or STIs and 1.5 times more likely to have sex without a condom.
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